‘Fee-fi-fo-fum’ is often repeated outside of Jack’s story. Throughout it, Jack stands up to numerous threatening giants and saves many lives. He also meets his future wife. The entertaining chant is perfectly rhymed making it easy to remember and fun to read and memorize. Despite its somewhat dark narrative, the lines are often cited humorously.
Fee-fi-fo-fum Nursery RhymeFee, fi, fo, fum,I smell the blood of an Englishman.Be he alive or be he deadI'll grind his bones to make my bread.
‘Fee-fi-fo-fum’ is the name of a humorous and interesting chant from the story “Jack the Giant Killer.”
The rhyme, ‘Fee-fi-fo-fum,’ is best-known from its original publication in “Jack the Giant Killer.” This is a Cornish fairy tale that tells the story of a young man who kills numerous giants during the reign of King Arthur. Giants, a common symbol and character in Cornish stories, were well worth defeating. The tune, which is chanted by a giant in the story, is incredibly well-known today. It was even referenced by William Shakespeare in King Lear. He wrote these lines, spoken by Edgar:
Child Roland to the dark tower came,
His word was still “Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.”
The story originally appeared in a chapbook in 1711. The plot was later used in a text published in 1760 by John Cotton and Joshua Eddowes. It’s unclear though where exactly this story originated from. Some suggest it could date back as early as the 1100s, in one form or another. There are some similarities between this tale and Norse Mythology, such as the various miniature series within the longer tale of his life. Scholars have also noted the magical objects he acquires as interesting related features.
Specifically, scholars have cited a story called “The Herd-boy and the Giant” as a similar tale in addition to “Tom Thumb,” a story from Norse myth.
The Story of Jack the Giant Killer
The story of “Jack the Giant Killer” follows a young boy named Jack who is clever enough to outsmart the wisest men around him. His wit is one of his best features. One day, he comes upon his first giant, Cormoran, eating livestock. He lures the giant to his death and is given the title “Jack the Giant Killer.” This death inspires another giant, Blunderbore, to swear vengeance against he boy. But, Jack has Cormoran’s wealth, as well as a sword and new belt. Blunderbore is soon defeated, as is his brother. He frees three men who were held captive in their castle, women who were surely going to be eaten.
The story goes on, following Jack to Wales where he kills a two-headed giant. Jack meets and becomes a servant to King Arthur’s son at this point. Jack also receives some important gifts from a giant he spares. These include a cap of knowledge, an invisibility cloak, and shoes that are supposed to make him incredibly fast.
Jack wins more honors, including a place at the Round Table, when he frees a woman from Lucifer. He breaks the spell Lucifer has her under and beheads him. Later, after freeing more captives from a giant, he’s having a banquet and the famous poem, “Fee-fi-fo-fum” enters into the story. The lines are said out loud by a new giant, the two-headed Thunderdel. He chants the rhyming lines but is soon defeated.
The story ends when Jack marries a Duke’s daughter, a young woman he freed from a giant named Galligantus, or Galligantua. She had been transformed into a what doe at the hands of a sorcerer, and he’s able to bring her back to her new form, as well as free those she was held captive with.
Structure and Form
‘Fee-fi-fo-fum’ is a four-line chant found in the traditional fairy-story, “Jack the Giant Killer.” The lines follow a rhyme scheme of AABB. But, the first two are clear half-rhymes. That is, if they’re pronounced in contemporary English. It’s possible to imagine that over the centuries the words “fum” and “Englishman” may have been closer to full rhymes. But, by altering the second word’s pronunciation, readers end up with an interesting combination of sounds that might help them imagine the giant’s words more clearly.
The lines do not follow a strict metrical pattern. The first contains four syllables, the second: nine, the third: eight, and the fourth: also eight.
Despite its brevity, readers can take note of several literary devices in this rhyme. They include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: occurs when the writer uses the same consonant sounds at the beginning of multiple words. The first line is a great example as is the fourth with “bones” and “bread.” This helps the overall rhythm of the piece, especially considering there is no metrical pattern.
- Sensory imagery: seen through the writer’s use of the phrase “smell the blood” and “grind his bones.” Both of these evoke a very particular experience. The smell of blood is quite familiar, probably to all readers, but the sound of grinding bones is one that most people don’t know but can easily imagine.
- Parallelism: seem through the use of the same structure within a line or across several lines. In this case, the writer used “Be he” twice in the third line, changing up “alive” and “dead” to make a point about the giant’s un-picky appetite.
Here is the full ‘Fee-fi-fo-fum’ chant as it appeared in “Jack the Giant Killer.” The following lines are spoken by Thunderdel:
Fee, fi, fo, fum,
I smell the blood of an Englishman.
The giant is seeking to kill and eat Jack, as well as those who are attending his banquet. The reference to food and smell is a clear allusion to the different lives the giant and human beings live. To the giant, Jack and his friends are a meal to be played with.
The first line is a great example of what’s known as nonsense verse. It is a type of language that’s invented for a certain story or poem. The words are coined for the occasion and do not usually have a clear meaning. It’s more likely that the poet or author was interested in their sound and the effect they’d have on readers. This is especially true when the lines are read out loud.
Readers should take note of how the sounds “fie, fi, fo, fum” mimic the footsteps of someone coming closer and edging up on what they want. In this case, the giant Thunderdel is getting ready to attack and eat Jack.
Also, of interest are the alternative spellings of the first line. In some iterations of the story the words are:
Fee, fa, fo, fum
Fee, fi, fo, fum
Fee, fa, fum
The second line of the chant, “I smell the blood of an Englishman,” is also interesting. It is perhaps more straightforward, but it’s an integral part of what makes this chant so interesting. The fact that the giant can smell Jack and his companions’ blood is quite intimidating.
Be he alive or be he dead
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.
The next two lines of the chant are less commonly used. They do not follow the same strange, half-rhyme scheme. Instead, they rhyme perfectly with “dead” and “bread” at the ends of each line. There is also an interesting example of repetition of “Be he” in the first line. This proves that the giant is cruel and willing to do whatever he needs to do to get his meal. He’s also going to consume every bit of the people he encounters. He’ll eat their bodies, blood, and even use their bones to make bread. This is dark but also strange and entertaining.
These two tales are entirely different. But, they do often get categorized as the same type of story. They both feature a boy named Jack and giants.
Jack kills several giants throughout his life. He kills some with his sword, tricks others into killing themselves, and lures others into traps.
Jack kills at least eight giants throughout “Jack the Giant Killer.”
It’s unclear where the story originated, but scholars have connected the story to tales from Norse mythology.
Jack chose to kill the giant who said “fee-fi-fo-fum” because he was going to kill him and his friends at a banquet. Jack has to kill him, as he does the other giants, in order to save people he cares about and make his realm a better place.